After many years living in Houston, Texas, I’m moving to Washington, D.C. in about 10 days. There is a certain inevitability to the move; over the past several years no other city has figured so prominently in conversations about life. Colleagues and friends don’t say “I think you should live in New York” or “I think you would do well in Miami” (although a couple have suggested Silicon Valley because of my involvement in entrepreneurship, and as recently as four weeks ago I thought I was headed somewhere else entirely.) They do say this about me and Washington, though. The first time I remember hearing the suggestion was in 2002.
I work on policy and strategy for government, and on business management and development. I advise on space-related topics as well as on intersections between public policy and public engagement in science, technology and space. There is a great deal of work to do; moving forward I’d like to see the nation lay out some specific markers and resources for R&D and international collaboration in space and science, particularly in advance of transition to a new Administration. All of this screams “D.C.”! – but it doesn’t have to. I used to do those things from Houston – as recently as last year. That was the same year I knew I was ready for change. Why now?
The answer has to do with creativity and opportunity to engage with new places, people and things up close. Creativity requires stress, difficulty and even failure as well as inspiration and the occasional muse in equal measure. Turning toward change is a natural stimulant; it engages the mind, the emotions, the will. The risk involved is a great mechanism for sharpening the senses – a response akin to the “threat reaction” that’s wired into our DNA.
For me, this kind of “reboot” has always worked best in a new location. The need to go there is physical as well as cognitive; despite a contrarian physique I’m a born explorer. My habit of visiting live volcanoes is just one example; my passion for human space exploration is another. Moving every few years is yet another, across neighborhoods if not cities. I’ve lost count of all the places I’ve lived but I’ve enjoyed them all – even the more challenging among them.
We’re built to try new things, and to learn. It’s true there are costs – financial, physical, emotional. Resources have to be expended. New business ventures or positions aren’t always stable (neither are old ones, though we like to think they are.) It’s difficult to disrupt existing relationships, and separating ourselves from those we care for is one of the hardest things in life. Finally, the realization that what you’re doing or where you are isn’t working for you anymore – even if you love it – can be a humbling, even disconcerting experience.
Embracing the inevitable, and turning toward change, though – there’s nothing like it. The anxiety, the anticipation, and the “taking stock” – opening oneself to new experiences – are all of great value. Not knowing if success or failure is on the other side of a transition requires us to manage fear, embrace new ways of thinking, eschew negativity and be flexible. Uncertainty encourages self-discipline and perseverance. These internal renewals have positive outward effects.
I will miss friends and colleagues in Houston – and I’m sure I’ll miss the weather ’round about mid-February, particularly when I’m standing in slush in Dupont Circle hunting a cab because the Metro’s delayed – but I’m excited, and ready. Life is a grand adventure. Best wishes for a new “New Year”!
For friends in Houston, I’ll be sharing wine and reminiscences at Chelsea Wine Bar in Seabrook TX just down the road from NASA Johnson Space Center on Jan. 9, from 4:30 – 7:30 pm. Y’all come!
A post that’s part travelogue, part observation about Hawaii as a space exploration testbed, and part musings about sustainability and building consensus in the space community.
At the invitation of the Hawaii Office of Aerospace Development (@aerospacehawaii) I spent last week on the Big Island for the #NextGiantLeap conference. I’m grateful for the invitation and found the trip fascinating – something I can’t always say about a conference outing.
I was invited there to help think about intersections of policy with robotic development and leveraging lunar resources, as well as to discuss sustainability of the human space exploration enterprise with fellow panelists Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace; Jason Crusan (@jasoncrusan) Director of Advanced Exploration Systems/NASA Human Exploration & Operations; Louis Friedman, Executive Director Emeritus of The Planetary Society; and Mark Craig, NASA Account Manager (and national museum consultant) from SAIC. Here’s a quick capture of us (Lou was on Skype on screen alongside and not visible here). A copy of the conference agenda is here.
Along with other attendees I had the opportunity to tour aerospace sites all over the island, including telescopes on Mauna Kea, at 14,000 ft…
…and to visit a Mars habitat analog site, run by the University of Hawaii at Hilo and PISCES, the Pacific International Center for Space Exploration Systems. Crews are isolated there for 8 months to study medical, social and psychological issues that may arise during planetary habitation off-Earth.
All of this is made possible by the extraordinary geography of this place. The Big Island, like her sister Hawaiian islands, is volcanic. Formed at the site of a “hot spot” on the ocean floor, this ancient process of planetary cooling produces some of the newest land on Earth. The result is a landscape much like the lunar and Martian surfaces (except for the abundant presence of an atmosphere and water) from which we can learn much on our journey to other worlds. Habitats, rovers, robotic tools and sensors, helpful features of ancient lava tubes (much like those found on the Moon) – and even lunar construction techniques are all developed and tested here. The most innovative of these may be PISCES latest projects – the development of sustainable basaltic concrete using local materials that resemble lunar regolith – and 3-D printing using basalt. Both of these are aimed in situ resource utilization (ISRU) – “living off the land” on other worlds. Concrete from basalt is far greener than normal concrete and has applications on Earth as well, making this a “dual use” development project that has drawn interest from the State of Hawaii as well as from NASA.
The conference itself was intent on “innovative collision”, bringing together a wide range of folks to focus on development of lunar resources and capabilities. The overall goal – at a higher level than the conference but which the conference is aimed at – is to establish broad-based coalitions and partnerships among governments, industry, academia, and the public in support of space exploration, with particular focus on the Moon. Our panel looked at overall sustainability of human space exploration through several lenses – the need to “tell the story” of what we’re trying to do with ideas about how to do that (Mark), discussion of our recent National Research Council’s “Pathways to Exploration” report, with an emphasis on collaboration with commercial and international partners (me), discussion of commercial interests in exploration and establishing the basis of for business growth and sustainability (Jeff, with riffs from me), discussion of NASA’s Advanced Programs work and thinking about open source, new technologies, and new ways of doing business with commercial entities (Jason), and discussion of planetary exploration including asteroid (Lou). Working groups focused on partnerships and public engagement, lunar-robotic exploration and utilization of the Moon, and creation of goals and organizing principles for those members of the community interested in lunar development. Speakers at the conference included Buzz Aldrin, Bernard Foing, Eva Jane Lark, and others.
Prior to the conference I had been wondering whether it is possible to pull together a consensus framework in support of space exploration. It turned out that several other of the conference attendees had similar thoughts. I discussed the idea of a “go forward policy framework” with people representing the entire gamut of space exploration interests, organizations and agendas, and was surprised to find some consensus. Might we set aside parochial interests? Maybe it was the surroundings (tropical paradise) – or maybe it is the sense that the clock is ticking. Whatever it was, I left the conference with the glimmerings of hope that it might be possible.
It’s a rare setting these days where people feel free to speak their minds even to the point of very passionate disagreement, and yet maintain a collective sense of responsibility to the whole. This is deep in our psyche, if we can only remember it. It’s a survival instinct. Like the explorers who found these extraordinary shores, we have to find ways to go together if we’re going to go at all – no matter the depth of our disagreements. Maybe that’s the true “innovative collision”.
Last week I spent several days in tech circles on the move in the Houston area. Houston’s hot, and not just because it’s August. The business economy is booming. There’s a fearless, can-do attitude here in entrepreneurial circles that spills out into daily interactions. And things are changing. Entrepreneurism is beginning to feel like a lifestyle or life choice, not just a business perspective. Particularly on the tech side, there’s a whole subculture developing. The energy is great and out of it, great things will come.
One thing that hasn’t changed is how much people love to talk about what turns them on. It’s a thing I love about entrepreneurs.
I really enjoy my local Trader Joe’s but on Wednesday I enjoyed it more. The checkout guy and I riffed on the what kinds of chocolate are best while he was filling my bag. (Dark. Minimum 70% cocoa. No negotiation.) When he saw a @NASA logo on my keychain he asked what I do for a living. I sketched my answer in broad strokes and we started talking about space and technology. I’m guessing his age is late 20’s, early 30’s. Things are changing, and space exploration has renewed power to inspire, but what he really likes is the tech. “Cool”, he said.
So I asked what he likes about technology. It turns out he has a degree in art design but recently found his way to the University of St. Thomas and started playing around with electronics. There he got interested in brain functions and their relationship to vision. Now he’s working with a professor and couple of other students exploring brain mapping in combination with different visual filters when subjects look at art. Here’s the kicker: He built a lot of the equipment himself, and what he didn’t build he was able to source at low cost.
Research demands technology, technology begets innovation, innovation drives both technology and research. The difference – and the opportunity of these days – is the sheer power and low cost of tech.
He’s got a lot of questions: “How does a visual filter impact what the brain does when it look at a piece of art that it was previously looking at without the filter? What’s the relationship between this and how people look at their world? Our eyes lie to us all the time – can we figure out anything about how people filter experience that might help us better communicate with each other, based on what our brains are doing?” What Checkout Guy is really interested in are the effects of perceptual filters – the way we interpret information based on our experiences – and how the brain functions. He’s certainly asking great questions, but he wants to go further. He’s looking for ways to put what he learns into practice. He’s taking aim at a Big Problem – Communication – and wants to use technology to help solve it. He’s already thinking about how to use what he learns “in the real world”.
With some important exceptions, technology is becoming democratized, and that is making darn near anything possible. I’m going to keep that in mind, next time I check out at Trader Joe’s. And if you’re the one standing behind the counter, you might check these out for inspiration:
A few hours after my last post on “Innovation at Escape Velocity”, @TechCrunch posted a story on Y Combinator’s latest batch of startups. “New At Y Combinator: Startups Solving Huge Problems!” featured a group of “Big Problem” companies taking aim at social, biotech, and energy issues. It also gave a preview of what Y Combinator is planning to do in this space – namely, bring on more of the same.
The growth and implementation bottlenecks I talked about in yesterday’s post include some that definitely qualify as Big Problems. There are even a couple of intersections between my short list of examples and Y Combinators’s startups – energy, for one. So it got my attention last night when TechCrunch’s @ryanlawler tweeted a note about the investor show-and-tell at Y Combinator:
Investors look at things like management team, culture, plan, and – oh yes – market cap. Lots of them go with their gut, with their sense of what’s starting to roll, with what’s worked before, or with what analytics are telling them. Now, some of them may be asking themselves, “Will these ‘tried and true’ methods work here? Or is there something fundamentally different about valuation of Big Problem startups?”
Most startup narratives are pretty linear: Innovation (idea) + tech + management + culture + plan + investment + time + luck + penetration + acceptance + propagation = estimate of valuation/guesstimate of return.
But in the @ycombinator startup portfolio, the potential value of some startups is superlinear, multivariate, multiplicative – cascading across several different markets, social structures – even economies. The assumption is always that value will be positive, but complex interactions could generate negative returns in some arenas and positive returns in others. Valuation methods that take those interactions into account with even a little predictive validity would be a boon to startups, incubators, accelerators and investors alike.
In the short run it could be that none of this matters. Companies have a growth curve that requires funding to get from A to B no matter how big the idea is. Y Combinator is focused on early-stage companies, and investors who focus on just that part of the curve might gravitate to companies with the right teams and energy. More conservative types might jump into “BP” startups with tiered on/off ramps built into their offerings (for example) if they’re worried about whether the idea is “too big”.
Lucky for innovative visionaries, though, some investors look to the horizon. Matching those investors to these sorts of companies is an evolving story, and it’s one that Y Combinator appears ready to help shape. And they’re not alone.
But right now, these companies are the exception. In a later tweet about the Y Combinator startups @ryanlawler mused “So, yeah, it’ll be interesting to see who steps up and writes them checks”.
Yeah. It will.